January 6th is a personal anniversary for me.
It was my original sobriety date: January 6, 1986.
I have not had any alcohol since January 5th, 1986 -- which is, given the nature of my alcoholism, nothing short of miraculous, trite as that phrase may be.
But that is not my sobriety date now. To date I have been clean and sober and honest about it since March 1, 1988. I have to include the "honest about it" part because ... well, you'll see.
I stumbled (literally) into AA in early January of 1986. My family had done their half-assed version of an intervention, and by that I mean it was all heart and no teeth. The shark-like predatory alcoholic inside me knew that I still had some rope to play in that department. It is the nature of alcoholism that you can love people deeply, and still ruthlessly use them in order to keep drinking. The guilt from this, under the internal pressure of addiction, crystallizes into a kind of deep self loathing -- like coal into diamond; from a lump of black to something hard and sharp and cutting -- but what it cuts is any semblance of self worth or esteem.
But although I felt there was more bluff than consequence from the Enablers Quarter, the first small miracle of my sobriety was that I called the phone number they had given me for the National Council on Alcoholism. My memory of what happened when I went is hazy, but suffice to say I left with an Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting Directory and the clear sense that an AA meeting was my next stop.
It was hideous.
Oh, the people were nice -- wonderful, in fact. It was just that I was detoxing and freaking out and if I hadn't promised myself that I would stay for the whole thing I would have made a polite excuse and a run for the door after about five minutes. Again, my memory is spotty on some of the specifics -- I remember I chain smoked through the whole thing (this was back when you could smoke in meetings -- ironically not only could you smoke in meetings, the meeting itself was held in the smoking section of a hospital cafeteria. Man, back in the day, those smoking meetings were smokey. There is nothing like a roomful of sober drunks, drinking coffee and smoking, to paint the air blue. I remember thinking, even as a serious smoker back then, "Holy spit, this smoke thing is over the top." The meetings were ninety minutes long, and by the end of the first hour you could barely see to the other side of the room.)
From there I got my first Big Book, and learned about what other meetings were held there at the hospital (venturing beyond the one place I'd found seemed too much for me), and one day at a time, I did not drink and I went to meetings.
I had terrible, explosive migraines (given the amount I was drinking towards the end, a medically supervised detox would probably have been wise).
I sweated profusely and my mouth was dry and I remember feeling like my brain was buzzing, like an actual low-grade, nearly audible hum, and I was about five seconds from saying "eff it" and going back to the bar at any given moment ... but I just read the Big Book and went to meetings and ... didn't drink, one minute at a time.
Then I realized that ... one minute at a time had added up to some days.
Then I found out about the chips, and I circled the days on the calendar as to when I could get them. I was determined to get the chips. I was not above lying to get them, except that in the back of my mind I pictured going up for a chip before I'd earned it and someone in the back of the meeting jumping up and shouting "Stop! That man is a filthy liar! He has not been sober long enough for that chip!" Then everyone would gasp, and I'd have to leave.
(If you're new to AA I would like to pause this loopy personal recollection for a moment and assure you that AA meetings are not a place where you will find people jumping up and denouncing the newcomer for anything. A couple of old-timers may go toe-to-toe on rare occasions, metaphorically speaking, and usually on something important only to the two of them -- but the overwhelming majority of AA'ers would just like to welcome you if you're new, and pretty much that's it. Our enthusiasm in that can be its own kind of off-putting, but that's a discussion for some other time.)
Why getting the chips was so important to me, I do not know -- except that I have always liked a little trinket, a little souvenir, possibly some jewelry, so that might have had something to do with it. Whatever it was, I locked in on those chips with laser intensity.
Then I actually got a chip, and people clapped, and I pretended that it didn't matter but I liked that very much indeed.
I kept my mouth shut, didn't share for a long time (hard to believe now, I'm sure) but back then I was still checking the whole thing out, looking for hooks and angles.
Three chips along, suddenly one night, sitting at my kitchen counter, I thought to myself, "You know what? I should go and see Greg and Leon. I haven't seen them in three months -- they're going to think I'm rude!"
Yeah, rude. That's what I convinced myself I was worried about.
Now, Greg and Leon lived together and were partners in a small construction company -- which was really more apartment prep/handyman than real construction. I had fallen in with them at the bar, and started working for them. None of us liked each other much when we were sober, but that wasn't ever a problem, since we were constantly smoking pot and drinking.
So I hop off my kitchen stool and toodle on over to say hi to Greg and Leon.
Except that I wasn't going over to say hi, I was going over to get high.
And in the way of the curious mental blank spot all who suffer from alcoholism are afflicted with, I both did and did not know this. I did not know it just a little teeny bit more than I did know it, and that's all it takes, kids.
That's all it takes to wind up killing yourself, actually.
So I went over and they were drinking and smoking, like they always were, and I sat in the same chair I always sat in, like I always did, and ... naturally, I got high. I was determined not to drink with them -- I think I dimly understood that there was no turning back again from that for me -- my 90 something days had been hard, hard won, and (to this day) I believed that I wouldn't be able to do it again if I'd started drinking again that night.
So... now I had a secret.
On the way home I gnashed my teeth and yelled at myself and had that awful sinking feeling in your gut when you've done that same old same old major screw up again. I thought maybe I'd have to give back my AA chips... and ... and I didn't want to have to start over! So, genius con and fraud that I am, I made a deal with God.
I used to make lots of deals with God. God usually kept God's end of the bargain, in one fashion or another, albeit a bit silently. Me? Not so much. But this time I was deeply sincere. I promised God that now I got it, and I understood that clean and sober meant clean and sober, and that was just like my little "test" -- it didn't count -- and from then on I wouldn't drink or smoke pot or ... any other drugs ... and so since now I was going to be "good" I didn't have to tell anybody about that little trip to Greg and Leon's. That would be God's and my special little thing.
So I had a secret and a deal with God and I actually kept them both.
And since it was, as noted above, nothing short of miraculous that I wasn't drinking, and I threw myself into AA to the best of my ability, I stayed sober, and eventually, unbelievably, I actually forgot about my little visit to Greg and Leon and the fact that I was on dirty time.
(In the classic 1960 film "Inherit the Wind," which is a slightly fictionalized account of the John Scopes "Monkey Trial," the character of Mathew Harrison Brady is on the stand giving testimony about his belief in the Bible's 7 day creation story. Clarence Darrow asks him some tough questions, to which he replies, "I do not choose to think about things I do not choose to think about!" I always thought that brilliantly captures the way my mind worked in those days. That was me, then, and I pray with all my heart sometimes that it is not me now. Or not much, or not for long, anyway.)
But here's the problem with secrets and lies:
They will drive a sober alcoholic insane.
And that's what started happening to me.